Article: The dilemmas and opportunities of partnership working with young people in the police service
This article reports on a qualitative study that explored how professionals made sense of young people’s participation in the context of the Youth Commissions in England. It concludes that young people have skills and capabilities to contribute to partnership work, yet some professionals hold deficit views of young people, and tend to believe that 'professionals know best'.
This article discusses a recent qualitative study that explored how professionals made sense of young people’s strengths, capabilities and experiences in relation to the governance of policing. The recent changing policy context in the police service, influenced by the Police and Social Responsibility Act (2011), has contributed to the development of a ‘Youth Commission’ model on police and crime. Since 2013, this model has been introduced as projects across some regional areas in England. A Youth Commission is an independent group of diverse young people aged 14 – 25, recruited to share their knowledge and experiences on crime and policing topics (Leaders Unlocked, 2017). This model recognises young people are ‘experts by experience’ (Checkoway, 2011). Aims of the Youth Commission are to empower young people and value them as resources. This is achieved when young people are working in partnership with their Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC) and police service to improve police social responsibility and support crime prevention in the community.
The Youth Commission promotes young people as the solution to crime prevention through sharing knowledge and experiences with policing, gaps in existing services, and suggesting ideas for police and partners(Leaders Unlocked, 2017). This confronts a dominant narrative over time which has viewed young people as problematic, passive and incompetent, especially in the field of policing and criminal justice (Hendrick, 2015). Furthermore, the Youth Commission aligns with copious academic literature which promotes youth participation initiatives, recognising that young people are vulnerable and require decision making power on issues that affect them (Checkoway, Allison, & Montoya, 2005; Gallagher, 2008; Landsdown, 2003; Tisdall, 2013). More specifically, the idea of ‘partnerships’ sits with theories of participatory governance and power structures to ‘transform’ relationships between adults and young people, whilst creating effective policies and progressive social outcomes (Chhotray & Stoker, 2009; Tisdall, 2013). Despite this, the recent study uncovered that most professionals working alongside young people in the Youth Commission were trapped in a ‘professionals know best’ dilemma, which led to young people’s capabilities being devalued at times, and created some barriers towards ‘transformative participation’ in the police service.
Youth Participation in a Public Service Context
In a public service context, youth participation has been promoted through a renewed interest in the concept ‘co-production’ (Tisdall, 2017). In the 1970’s, co-production was first used in America when evaluating community policing, by highlighting the necessity of partnerships between the police and community for effective crime prevention (Ostrom, Parks, Whitaker, & Percy, 1978). The idea of co-production views citizens as active agents, enabling them to participate with organisations on community levels, in the planning, design and delivery of public services (Heyes, 2017; Loeffler, 2016; Tisdall, 2017). Hence, co-production has the potential to challenge dominant views of young people as problematic and incompetent, as it recognises an opportunity for them to participate in decision making.
Some argue the concept of co-production moves beyond basic notions of youth participation because it has a ‘transformative’ nature (Loeffler, 2016; Tisdall, 2013, 2017). To explain further, Tisdall (2013, 2017) identifies the notion of ‘horizontal relationships’ in co-production practices, whereby spaces of participation are ‘transformed’ to find adult power-holders held more accountable, with young people providing their skills and expertise, and being trusted as important resources as decision makers. To support this idea further, the idea of ‘interdependency’ proposes the ability to view public service professionals becoming dependent upon young people for support (Tisdall, 2017). Arguably, within public services, professionals and young people can be dependent upon each other within participation initiatives for improved social outcomes.
Although, a major challenge faced within youth participation initiatives is that public service professionals assume they ‘know best’, thus diminishing the belief of young people having credible expertise (Checkoway, 2011; Tisdall, 2017). The impact of these assumptions from adults towards young people would arguably delegitimise the value of a ‘partnership’ approach. More specifically, when considering engagement with police, it is stated how young people would be reluctant to, due to fears of being criminalised and responded to with punishment (Creaney, 2014). Previous studies also expressed conflict in partnership working between young people and public service professionals, where they commonly expressed a lack of trust and confidence in young people’s capabilities (Barnes, Newman, & Sullivan, 2007; Milbourne, 2009; Walmsley, 2015; Willow, 2002). Subsequently, ideas of horizontal, trusted relationships and interdependency between professionals and young people working together within public services, offers greater challenges than anticipated, and requires deeper interrogation within the specificity of the Youth Commission on police and crime projects.
Methods of the Study
The research discussed in this article focused on three regional areas where the Youth Commission model on police and crime had been established. The interview group consisted of 8 participants from the PCC office, and 3 participants from the police service. Participants all held senior positions, and were professional stakeholders in their local Youth Commission. They reflected a multiplicity of experience and knowledge. Recruiting this group of participants aimed to uncover individual attitudes and beliefs towards young people through their experience, and explore how they valued working with young people in the Youth Commission. Therefore, semi – structured interviews were conducted with the participants (King and Horrocks, 2010: Charmaz, 2006). Qualitative interviews are able to rigorously investigate beliefs, attitudes, and individual perspectives, whilst providing an opportunity for self-reflection (King and Horrocks, 2006). Interviews ranged between 60 to 90 minutes in length of time. This qualitative method was appropriate as the time allowed opportunities for rich, in-depth data to be collected.
The ‘Professionals know best’ dilemma
Challenges were raised during partnership working between young people and professionals when professionals believed they were the experts and disregarded young people’s expertise and capabilities. Some participants explained how it was their role to educate, emphasising a ‘professionals know best’ dilemma previously discussed (Checkoway, 2011; Tisdall, 2017). In particular, one professional shared an example of young people being involved in a ‘hate crime’ campaign. This participant described how they were co-producing a survey with a young person. Their expression below demonstrated how they devalued a young person’s abilities, and it was interpreted that they held underlying beliefs that ‘professionals know best’;
There was a question on it and I just kind of said ‘why is that question in there, what are you going to get from this, what is the value in there, what is the purpose of this question?’ She couldn’t explain it to me and I said, ‘well actually get it out, because that question is of no value to anybody we are not going to do anything with the data, there is no evidence base for asking that question and you are just going to probably annoy the people who are going to fill out the questions because it’s a meaningless question’(PCC staff, Area A).
Other participants expressed how it was their role to educate and train young people when working alongside them. This meant, some participants held greater value in their professional role believing that it was to empower and enhance young people’s skills. For example, one participant said they would not expect young people to talk about policing topics with other young people during workshops if they do not know ‘the laws’ and therefore provided young people with professional training. This seems a legitimate argument that can be supported through developmental aims of viewing youth participation as a means for adults to build young people’s capabilities (Farthing, 2012) However, during an interview, a senior police professional strongly expressed his beliefs about educating young people with his knowledge about policing;
I am not trying to turn around and be arrogant and say we know it all but I think I will come back to my comment of being the educator (Police staff, Area C).
Even though empowering young people through knowledge and skill development is viewed as an important aim, the study considered how participant’s viewpoints portrayed a narrow understanding of youth participation, and at times they ignored the knowledge that young people have to offer. These participants above presumed that young people were not knowledgeable in the field of policing and did not view young people as ‘experts by experience’. Overall, attitudes of the participants in these described situations can cautiously inhibit transformative participation and successful partnership working from occurring in practice.
Although, during the interviews some participants positively described situations where young people were provided with opportunities to share their knowledge and ideas to professionals. These participants openly claimed they valued the ideas shared by the young people. However, at times, they were still suggesting how their professional knowledge and guidance was required:
Some of the feedback I gave them was trying to make their actions more deliverable… they were very aspirational and I think they were too wide ranging (Police Staff, Area B)
We do policy assurance in helping to steer them, you know obviously it’s their project but we are almost trying to ground them and bring them back
(PCC Staff, Area A).
In consideration, the role of the professionals to facilitate and challenge young people’s ideas in the ‘Youth Commission’ could provide evidence of partnership working (Tisdall, 2017). Nonetheless, the above comments from the participants about young people’s ideas being ‘wide ranging’ and feeling the need to ‘ground’ young people, could prove the devaluing of young people’s knowledge and ideas. In one case, the participant explicitly claimed young people had ‘unrealistic’ ideas. As previously argued, when professionals believe their expertise are more valuable than young people’s skills and expertise, it can delimit aims to create horizontal relationships that are required for partnership working (Barnes et al., 2007; Milbourne, 2009; Walmsley, 2015; Willow, 2002). Professionals working in their Youth Commission acknowledged young people were given a space to share ideas, but could not acknowledge their dependency upon young people for building knowledge about youth crime topics to improve the police service.
Moving towards interdependency through the ‘conversational approach’
The ‘Youth Commission’ on police and crime as a participation model uses a method of peer – peer research to gather information from young people about policing and crime topics within the aims to improve the police service (Leaders Unlocked, 2017). There were mixed feelings towards this method by the participants, which they defined as a ‘conversational approach’. This seemed to enable young people to prompt rich, meaningful conversations on policing and crime topics;
That’s probably one of the strengths… the conversational approach… They are going to speak to so many individuals and they get so much sense of what people are thinking and feeling (PCC Staff, Area C).
The conversational approach was valued as being informal, flexible, and fluid. It allows young people to participate in their own settings, which has previously been uncovered as an empowering method of participation (Willow, 2002; Zlotowitz, Barker, Moloney, & Howard, 2016). An understanding developed that professionals were dependent upon these peer – peer conversations. There was further agreement that the conversational approach ‘broke down barriers’ in discussing policing and crime topics;
they are a group of young people who then go and consult their peers and are able to get more honest and frank conversations going than if the police and crime commissioner himself was to go out on the streets and talk to young people (PCC Staff, Area A).
Although most participants saw the conversational approach as a considerable strength of the Youth Commission model, one participant reflected on how this was distinctively different from their usual method of work;
I struggle with where we should sit on the spectrum with formal – informal, as I like hard statistics and I would love to just send out a survey… I think its recognising that isn’t necessarily the best way to engage with young people in order to really truly get their views and tap into what they are thinking (PCC Staff, Area C).
In this instance, it seemed as though the participant felt uneasy about the conversational approach but was able to recall how this was successful in uncovering experiences and knowledge of policing and crime topics from young people. Discussing this approach used in the Youth Commission situates well with coproduction principles of activating young people into service planning, design and delivery (Loeffler, 2016; Tisdall, 2017). The model could even prove to be effective if there is a requirement to overcome fears of punishment that young people may feel when discussing topics of police and crime (Creaney, 2014). Though, the main advantage sought through the conversational approach is that professionals unknowingly declare a level of dependency on young people by having to trust young people’s capabilities. This highlights interdependency developing between professionals and young people, as the participants recognised this and started to believe in young people’s capabilities. The Youth Commission could therefore contribute to influencing successful co-production between young people, the PCC office and police service.
The Youth Commission on police and crime model created opportunities for new partnership working between young people and police service professionals. Young people in the Youth Commission can participate in the design and planning of service delivery in local community policing. Young people’s knowledge and experiences are important resources for co-production to improve public services and social outcomes. However, the study found that some of the professionals working alongside young people in the Youth Commission became unaware that they hold underlying notions of devaluing young people’s capabilities and knowledge. Professionals should hold value to their professional status and expertise, but this can create barriers in recognising young people as valuable resources. Yet, the work of the Youth Commission shows that young people have skills and capabilities which can build interdependency and trusting relationships. Professionals would benefit from openly recognising their interdependency with young people, and seeing the greater value of young people’s knowledge, skills and experience for improving the police as a public service. Rather than viewing young people as incapable, professionals have the opportunity to champion young people as effective problem solvers and transform partnership working for improved social outcomes in the governance of policing and crime prevention.
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Last Updated: 10 September 2018
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After years of experience working in varied roles supporting children and young people, Samantha achieved her BA and MA degrees in Social Policy at the University of York. By gaining advanced social research skills, she is now currently undertaking her PhD studies at City University in Hong Kong, to gain a broader understanding of youth related policy on a global level.